You can have the perfect outfit, researched who you wanted to meet, business cards within easy reach, and even drafted your follow-up email, but it will be all for nothing if you aren’t effective while at the conference. Being effective is about having a strong sense of purpose, the skills to meet your goals, and a commitment to follow-through.
Why Croissants Vs. Bagels?
Quite a bit of the conference takes place outside breakout sessions, so you’ll navigate the vibrant chaos of the hallway and crowded receptions.
Picture this: on the first day of the conference, there is a thirty-minute block on the schedule for networking. You gamely head into the hallway, grab a cup of coffee, and begin to circle the space looking for an opening for your first conversation. You are not having a lot of success because everyone around you is in tight networking circles. These shoulder-to-shoulder huddles are the “bagels”—they are round and it is nearly impossible to break into them. If you are like most people, you’ll be looking for an easy opening. Not seeing one, you might circle the room and then head to your next breakout session early. If you do this, you will be missing out on all of the possible connections happening in the hallway between sessions.
Now imagine you’re one of the people standing in a typical networking “bagel.” If you took a small step back with one foot and turned your torso slightly, you’d create an opening, which would make it easier for someone to join your group. That is the “croissant”—the opening to help someone join the conversation.
Scan for Croissants
You don’t have to start by breaking into these tight networking huddles. When you first get to the networking space, look around the room, check how everyone is standing, and see if you can spot someone with a more open stance. Just focus on one of the people in the circle, and as the group conversation continues, begin a side conversation with the person who made space for you. And of course, use your own body language to welcome others into your new conversation. To repeat:
- Start by circling the room to get the lay of the land.
- Pay attention to people’s body language.
- Scan for openings in groups of 3-4 attendees who’re having a casual conversation (avoid interrupting duos in a dynamic conversation).
- Become aware of who’s more open to chatting by observing the body language of those around you.
Be A Croissant
If you are in one of those tight networking circles and you see someone hovering nearby, turn to create space for them to join you. If someone approaches your “croissant” and seems hesitant, wave them in. When there is a pause in the conversation, let the newcomer know what you are discussing. “Bob was just telling us about his trip to Alaska.” This gracious gesture allows the newcomer to listen politely and then ask relevant questions.
10 > 100
Expos, conventions and conferences can be great places to build your professional network. With a strategic goal in mind and some pre-planning, you can meet people who want to hear more about whatever it is you’re selling. Better to leave with just 10 quality contacts after having meaningful conversations than running around and collecting a stack of cards. These 10 contacts should remember you when you follow up later.
Quick Tips for Conference Success
- Have an upbeat attitude
- Firm handshake
- Mindful eye contact
- Business card within reach
- Pen handy
- Elevator pitch
- Active listening
- Leave on a high note
- Exit gracefully
Get In Line
If you’ve completed your lap around the room and don’t see a conversation opening, then get in line for food or a drink. As you’re moving through the line, make eye contact with someone near you and start a casual conversation. You could ask them their opinion about the specialty drink they ordered or comment on how delicious the buffalo cheese dip is. The point is to keep it casual – this is not the moment to whip out your card and pitch them.
You’ll find it’s much easier to meet people when they’re not standing with their circle of friends. This is more likely to happen when they’re in line for food for a drink. This is also a key difference between networking events and conference versus any night of the week at a bar.
Don’t Take Break In Corners
Go outside or go into a bathroom instead. If you stand in the corner, an outgoing extrovert may come and speak to you. In their excitement to share a story, they may be a bit obtuse and not notice your lack of interest or your desire to wrap u p the conversation. If this happens you may feel trapped and have no easy way to exit, since your egress is through the oblivious person speaking to you who’s not noticing your subtle hints.
It’s best to mingle in the middle of the room and look for conversation openings.
Best Opening Line
You catch their eyes as you pass them, turn and say, “Hi, my name is ____. I’m on the board.” They respond with their name and affiliation and you say, “Nice to meet you. How did you hear about tonight?” or “Nice to meet you. What are you looking forward to tonight?” Now you two are in a conversation and when you go home tonight you can send them a follow-up message.
By not overthinking this you’re more likely to approach people who seem familiar or anyone who happens to catch your eye. Keep in mind you aren’t going to follow this up by pitching them. Save your pitch for when you’ve already confirmed they’re interested in what you have to offer.
Yes it’s daunting to go talk to strangers but don’t wait more than three seconds before going over to them. Three seconds is all it takes and all you need to talk to them. Any longer and you’ll talk yourself out of the fear or awareness. Remember the key is to keep it simple, “Hi my name is…”
Ask Open-Ended Questions
The question could be related to the conference:
- What drew you to this session?
- What’s been the highlight of your day so far?
- Learn anything you know you’ll be able to use when you get home?
- How did you hear about this event?
It could also be a question on something they care about:
- Have any travel plans you’re looking forward to?
- If you had free time, how would you fill it?
- What do you do when you aren’t talking about finances?
You can follow these questions a bit more detail such as
- Does that help in some way with what you do for work?
- Sounds like a great way to get outside the world of finances.
Leave Them Thinking You’re Fascinating
Keep the conversation going by saying: “Really that’s so interesting. Tell me more.”
Is the conversation not coming around to something you’re interested in discussing? Wrap up the conversation a few minutes later. Don’t hesitate to drag it out. The person you were just talking to will walk away thinking you’re fascinating. Win win.
All you did in either case was said your name and asked them about their story with thoughtful questions. They didn’t know a lot about you, but they do end up thinking highly of you and open for reconnection.
So you’ve done it. You’re in a conversation you feel is going well and now you think you’re ready to wrap up. Here’s what you can do:
- Grip – start by shaking their hands
- Grin – smile and say “Pleasure speaking with you”
- Go – slowly walk away
If you’ve trouble exiting a conversation, it’s possible you interrupted this 3-step process. Have you ever shaken someone’s hand and then say “It was great to meet you” and then immediately think of something else to add?
You must resist the temptation. If you don’t, you’ll end up chatting for a few more minutes and waste the social cue of handshaking. If you shake hands, your feet need to walk away. If you want, you can come back to this person or send a follow-up email. The goal is to leave them on a high note so they’re looking forward to seeing or hearing from you again.